Sunday, June 5, 2011

June '11 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week
A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick’s classic remains as unnerving as it was in 1971. Welded to Malcolm McDowell’s spectacularly physical performance as the ultimate anti-hero, Kubrick’s sardonically funny and visually dazzling adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ cautionary novel is the ultimate feel-guilty-for-feeling-good movie. This 40th anniversary release sadly doesn’t upgrade the solid but unexciting transfer of the original Blu-ray, but does add two new retrospective featurettes and the feature-length career overview Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures to the previously-included full-length documentary about McDowell, O Lucky Malcolm, other featurettes and the actor’s chatty commentary.

The Big Bang (Anchor Bay) and Burning Palms (Image)
The seedier sides of Los Angeles are featured in these bizarre dramas. In The Big Bang, private eye Antonio Banderas investigates a missing woman and $30 million in diamonds, only to come up against Snoop Dogg and super-sexy Autumn Reeser as a whip-smart tattooed waitress. Burning Palms offers five vignettes of dysfunctional relationships, including one in which a young woman feels guilty after sex with her boyfriend. Enjoyably crazed moments are scattered throughout both movies, yet neither coheres satisfactorily. Each receives a top-notch hi-def transfer, and Big Bang extras comprise a commentary, extended scenes and a making-of featurette (no Burning Palms extras).

Gettysburg (Warners) and Gods and Generals (Warners)
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Warners lovingly packages on Blu-ray Ronald F. Maxwell’s sprawling films about pivotal moments during the War between the States: 1993’s Gettysburg, recounting the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil; and 2002’s Gods and Generals, which shows how strategies (or lack of) led to that pivotal 1863 battle. These already long films have been lengthened even more, both clocking in at over 4-½ hours. History fans (like me) will love it: Gods even features an added subplot about actor John Wilkes Booth. Maxwell’s stodgy direction is helped by exemplary casts (Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen in Gettysburg, Daniels, Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall in Gods). Extras include commentaries by Maxwell and several historians, featurettes and documentaries.

Gnomeo & Juliet (Disney)
If your and your kids’ tastes run to stale garden gnome and Shakespeare jokes, then Gnomeo & Juliet is for you. The colorful animation is all that kept me from nodding off, as neither dialogue nor songs (mostly Elton John retreads) were enough to hold my interest. This movie seemed to be created in a brief meeting: “Let’s do a take-off on Shakespeare!” “And let’ add Elton John music!” “OK, cool!” The clever animation really pops off the screen on Blu-ray; extras include two alternate endings, deleted scenes, Ozzy Osbourne interview, music featurette and a “Crocodile Rock” video.

The Great Dictator (Criterion)
Charlie Chaplin’s brilliantly hilarious Hitler satire was daring back in 1940, and today, even if the edges have worn off, there’s so much comic inventiveness throughout that even Chaplin’s usual sentimentality doesn’t drag the film down but nicely balance things between bold audacity and sticky-sweetness. Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer is absolutely superb: rarely have I seen a 70-year-old film looking so pristine. The usual bountiful Criterion extras include an audio commentary; The Tramp and the Dictator, a 2001 documentary that parallels Chaplin and Hitler; two visual essays; color production footage; and silent-film sequences.

I Am Number Four (Disney)
Director D.J. Caruso’s standard-issue sci-fi fantasy tells a teen-friendly story of an alien who finds danger and love when his cover is blown. Decent action sequences butt heads with by-the-numbers teen romance it’s aimed at the audience that made Twilight such a smash, it’s unsurprising that there’s nothing novel about the whole enterprise. Still, an attractive young cast gamely does its job, and there’s enough to keep one’s interest from flagging. The movie looks terrific on Blu-ray, while extras include deleted scenes, the usual blooper reel and a making-of featurette.

Papillon (Warners)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 epic stars Steve McQueen as Henri “Papillon” Charriere, whose attempts to escape from the notorious French colony of Devil's Island are recounted. Dustin Hoffman co-stars as his prison sidekick, and with two then-big stars front and center, this is a weird hybrid of Hollywood adventure and French art film. The movie is occasionally rousing good fun, yet rarely reaches the gripping heights its amazing true story is capable of. Now that it’s finally on Blu-ray, the movie definitively hasn’t looked this good (lots of filmic grain, for starters) since it was first released. The lone extra is a featurette, The Extraordinary Rebel.

Platoon (MGM) and Rocky (MGM)
These classics won Best Picture Oscars ten years apart: Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s one-two writing-acting knockout punch, in 1976; and Platoon, Oliver Stone’s personal recreation of his Vietnam experiences, in 1986. The gritty griminess of Rocky (recreated on the excellent Blu-ray) is as much director John G. Avildsen’s achievement as Stallone’s, while the you-are-there immediacy of Platoon (also given a satisfying Blu-ray transfer) is Stone’s lasting achievement. Shockingly, Rocky has no extras, except for a nice-looking digibook; Platoon includes the original DVD extras, including Stone’s commentary, deleted and extended scenes, featurettes and documentaries.

The Roommate (Sony)
I doubt anyone was clamoring for a remake of Single White Female, the creepy 1992 thriller starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda (whatever happened to her?). But here is The Roommate, gliding along to its foregone conclusion slickly and unsurprisingly, with several attractive performers in the leads (including Minka Kelly, whose bigger claim to fame is being Derek Jeter's current girlfriend) and a solid hi-def transfer. The Roommate does its job for its intended audience: those under 25 who’ve never seen Single White Female on TV, video or DVD. Extras include an audio commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, and on-set featurettes.

Solaris (Criterion)
Inscrutable to those wanting more visceral sci-fi adventures, Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 masterpiece is more about inner than outer space: the last word in psychological character study, this uncompromising glimpse at the minds of astronauts being controlled by a distant world they are exploring contains the usual Tarkovsky recipe of slow, steady and subtle effects, and if you don’t fall into a very deliberate frame of mind, you’ll never catch up. Evocative and genuinely beautiful visuals are rendered clearly on Criterion’s Blu-ray, with several B&W sequences color-coded correctly. Extras include Tarkovsky scholars‘ commentary, deleted/alternate scenes, video interviews with actress Natalaya Bondarchuk and the film’s cinematographer, art director and composer; and an excerpt from a documentary on Stanislaw Lem, whose novel inspired the film.

DVDs of the Week
Nenette, Every Little Thing, In the Land of the Deaf, Louvre City (Kino)
Nicholas Philibert, arguably the world’s finest documentary filmmaker, is represented by four of his characteristic films. 1990’s Louvre City displays the inner workings of the world’s most important art museum, 1992’s In the Land of the Deaf chronicles the lives of those cut off from the hearing world, and 1997’s Every Little Thing shows psychiatric inmates putting on a play. Philibert’s latest, Nenette, is an enchanting study of the Paris Zoo’s oldest resident: a female orangutan. Philibert’s films fill viewers with enchantment and wonderment while learning more about our world. Two bonus films are included on the Nenette disc: an 11-minute short, Night Falls on the Menagerie, and a 1996 feature about the stuffed animals in Paris’ natural history museum, Animals and More Animals.

CD of the Week
How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Decca)
Rob Ashford’s revival of the classic musical unabashedly wears its datedness on its sleeve. Listening to the new Broadway cast recording reinforces that impression, as Frank Loesser’s memorable score has its share of time-capsule tunes like “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” Still, standards like “Rosemary” and “I Believe in You” are there, and the energetic cast features Rose Hemingway’s sweet ingenue Rosemary and Tammy Blanchard’s hilarious bimbo Hedy La Rue. Star Daniel Radcliffe has a decent singing voice as our hero J. Pierrepont Finch, but not seeing his hard work onstage hampers him a bit. Still, this is an enjoyable listen.

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